Thursday, 29 October 2009

Loo with a view

It's not every day one gets the chance to use a public loo and leave the door open, but this is no ordinary loo. We're at Corrour bothy, nine miles from the nearest road, and 565 metres above sea level, in the heart of the Cairngorms.

A long weekend backpacking with my pal Rod was on the menu, with an ambitious plan to scale Ben Macdhui (1309m), and camp out overnight. But then there's the weather, and they have lots of it up here. Given that we're not Munro baggers we didn't feel compelled to slog ourselves to the top, through rain and cloud, and admire the view stretching to the end of our nose. The cloudbase was around 1000m, and we were damp to the point of soaking, from the falling rain, the boggy ground, and our sweat, as we dragged our portly bodies and backpacks up the glen from Linn of Dee.

The bothy at Corrour called us, and with its recent refurbishment, it made a splendid home for us overnight. OK, it has no electricity, gas, phone (land or mobile), but it has endless running fresh water, and full-on fresh air. And a wood burning stove, if you bring your own fuel.

This tiny refuge has been around since 1877, and since 2007 has had a toilet. Improvisation has been good enough for 130 years, but times have changed and they now have a "composting toilet". "What's that?" you may ask. For the user it has a conventional flap seat, but there's no water trap, so the smell discourages lingering. The toilet is being run as an experiment, with no precedent for a composting toilet in such a remote spot, and many days a year of sub-zero temperatures.

So what happens to the ordure? One is asked to wee elsewhere, and only drop poo and paper into the toilet. A bag collects the waste, and it is left hanging below the seat until it is full. It is expected that it will take three years for it all to breakdown into something that is safe to spread on the ground. The bag needs changing when it's full, with capacity in the toilet building's lower chamber for twelve bags of decomposing excrement.

Every stage has been thought through, but they didn't allow for the M25 effect. Four sacks of shit a year, taking three years to rot down, suggests that storage for twelve sacks is about right. But we're talking "Field of Dreams" here. Build it and they will come. The loo is fine for the past established usage patterns for the bothy, but when you build a proper bog, bothy dwellers and passers-by will gravitate towards it. It's like the M25 motorway; it won't just take traffic off the adjacent road network, it will make new journeys possible. New roads generate new traffic, and new toilets promote extra visits.

So what are they going to do about the backlog? Maybe once every two years they will send an all-terrain vehicle to take away some of the full sacks. Nice work if you can get it. And not too bad a price to pay, to save the landscape disappearing under a mound of turds, as Cairngorm visitor numbers increase year on year.

But let's be clear, it's never going to be too busy on a wet afternoon in October. So enjoy the view through the door. The crowds won't be arriving anytime soon.

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